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Can the US and Russia devise a plan for Syria?

Posted By on March 15, 2017 @ 14:30

Image courtesy of Pixabay user ColdSmiling.

The advent of a new administration in Washington, one with the declared intention to improve relations with Moscow, presents an opportunity for a fresh approach to resolve the dire problem of Syria. Currently a grim balance has established itself in a civil war where all contending parties appear to believe they have more to gain by fighting on than by seeking peace.

The government in Damascus led by Bashar al-Assad has the support principally of Russia and Iran. Ranged against it are no fewer than ten rebel groups, some of whom are backed by the United States, by Turkey and by various Arab countries. There is an evident irreconcilability not only between the government and its opponents, but also between the different rebel groups, some utterly radical and others relatively pragmatic. Nevertheless, several elements in the equation seem capable of movement and these are worth examining.

The most positive element is the very presence in the mix of Russia and the United States, neither of whom has vital interests in Syria although that country has for decades been a client state of Russia and it does give Moscow a good foothold in the Middle East. The US and Russia both  oppose Islamic terrorism, on issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change they see eye to eye, and in Syria they cooperate in a narrow military sense to avoid collisions and dangerous overlaps. If they were of like mind, they could readily sit down and devise a program for Syria. Both Mr Trump and Mr Putin might be glad of some international success this year.

Having reached an accord, the US and Russia would want it to bear fruit. Each must exert pressure and influence where it can and persuade belligerents to accept less than the most ambitious of their present aims. For the disparate rebel groups the sine qua non is removal of Bashar al-Assad and consequently his staying or going is a primary issue in the crisis. A less-than-maximum outcome is one that allows the Alawite-dominated regime to survive but requires Assad himself to depart within a firm and realistic timeframe. Assad may not have to vanish into exile; he could even be accorded some figurehead role.

Central to the Syrian dilemma is the fact that although the majority of the population is Sunni Arab it is denied any effective power. Lebanon in the past showed how sectarian differences can be constitutionally catered for, and something like that is imaginable in a plan for Syria, if not as an immediate achievement then as a target destination with a roadmap. Getting a better deal for the Sunnis in Syria would address a principal grievance of the rebels who are essentially all Sunni, and should also   find approval in neighbouring Turkey.

The Kurdish issue is intractable and yet it, too, contains pointers to a better if imperfect outcome.  Just about the most effective of all the military participants, the Kurds should be rewarded with something for their efforts. Turkey, however, looms large in this particular theatre, and fiercely opposes any general improvement for nearby Kurds lest its own minority become emboldened. In Iraq, which abuts Turkey, the Kurds have long had an autonomous region, and that might be replicated in Syria. As long as the two regions in Syria and Iraq were not contiguous and were both landlocked, Turkey ought to accept a new deal for Syrian Kurds on these lines.

For the rest, it is a matter of carrots and sticks. A Russian-American accord could declare that its road to peace was also a way to general prosperity and outline a reconstruction plan in tempting terms. The return of refugees could be one component, encouraging not only families to go home but also Europe to contribute generously to this great task.

Stern words and related inducements should be directed at Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were their client groups inclined to fight on. A stepped-up military campaign, coordinated between Washington and Moscow, should be able to suppress the threat from Islamic State and related forces on the ground.

High-level and secret bilateral diplomacy is the key to getting this process started. Further negotiations notably in Ankara, Tehran and Riyadh would be required to involve the other main players. The third phase would be formal negotiations to involve most of the rest, including the Kurds and the more pragmatic of the rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army. A framework for such negotiations already exists in Geneva.

All this presupposes initiative and deftness that has not been at all on view these past two months in Washington. And Russia has become a dirty word in the US capital. But how satisfying would it be for the new president to confound his critics at home: quelling the conflict in Syria via talks with his opposite number in Moscow.

The odds at present favour the impasse grinding on for years, taking a huge toll on human life in Syria and levelling the structures of the country. Turmoil favours the most radical elements and nothing of benefit to countries like ours can come from its continuing. If the Trump administration proves reluctant to make an effort to end the turmoil then Australia should, as a political and diplomatic priority, urge it to do so.

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